In his famous essay “On Fairy Stories,” The Lord of the Rings author and Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term “eucatastrophe.” The word was meant to portray the opposite of tragedy and embody the “Consolation of the Happy Ending”:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality (pgs. 22-23).
I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has preeminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath…But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused (pgs. 23-24).
I guess it’s a work of political theory, but for the most part it reads as history with a dash of evolutionary psychology. In exploring the origins of political order, Fukuyama starts by going way, way back before pre-history to make his first essential point: biology matters. In this regard, he’s echoing Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, but the relationship here is fairly specific. According to Fukuyama, the primary problem with thinkers like Rousseau or Hobbes isn’t that they got the particulars of pre-social humanity right, it’s that the concept of “pre-social humanity” is an oxymoron. Humans, as the expression goes, are social animals. And that means we’re political animals. Politics didn’t come later–after the invention of writing or agriculture –but have been there from the beginning, inextricably intertwined with our development of speech. So, from this “biological foundation of politics”, Fukuuama draws the following propositions:
human beings never existed in a presocial state
natural human sociability is built around two principles, kin selection and reciprocal altruism
human beings have an innate propensity for creating and following norms or rules
human beings have a natural propensity for violence
human beings by nature desire not just material resources but also recognition
After laying this groundwork, Fukuyama than goes on to describe in broad strokes the evolution of human societies from bands to tribes to states. He invokes principles from biological evolution explicitly here, arguing that societies compete against each other in ways that are sometimes (but not always) analogous to competition between animals. This analogy shouldn’t be taken too far: there are treacherous debates about whether organisms or genes compete, for example, and about the viability of group selection, but Fukuyama’s primary concern is actually with the differences between biological and political evolution, and so those nuances are forgiveably overlooked.
As for the bands -> tribes -> states progression, the basic notion is that bands (groups of no more than 100 or so at the most) are held together by actual blood relation. Tribalism is a social innovation that allows bands to come together by claiming (real or fictitious) common descent. Two bands might have the same patriarch or matriarch, and so in the face of a common enemy they can rapidly coalesce into a single unit. This capacity means that it’s fairly easy for tribal societies to defeat band societies, because every time a solitary band and a band that’s part of a tribal society come into conflict, the latter can call upon as many tribal allies as needed to win the fight. As a result almost no band societies are left in existence.
But tribal segments are intrinsically unstable. Fukuyama cites an Arab expression: “Me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the stranger.” When there is no stranger to confront, the cousins go to war. When there is no cousin on the horizon, the siblings feud. And so states are yet another progression–as superior to tribes as tribes are to bands–because of their ability to support not only temporary, contingent cooperation but permanent, universal cooperation.
Another argument he makes–and this one seemed just a little tangential but it’s interesting enough to go into–can be summarized as: ideas matter. Fukuyama says, for example, that “It is impossible to develop any meaningful theory of political development without treating ideas as fundamental causes of why societies differ and follow distinct development paths” and that ideas are “independent variables.” He’s reacting to the idea–exemplified in Marx–that to understand history in general and political development in particular, all you need are the physical factors: how much stuff do people have and what do they need to do to get more of it? He’s right to reject this idea. It’s wrong. But I think that–along with lot of other folks these days–he drastically overstates the extent to which anybody actually believes this.
It’s true that Economists talk about Homo economicus (the model of human beings as perfectly rational, self-interested agents), but never without an ironic edge. They know that this model is broken and doesn’t explain everything. That’s why the leading edge of critiquing human rationality intersects with economics: behavioral economics. Give economists some credit, they’ve already come up with bounded rationality as a fall-back, and you don’t do that unless you know that (unbounded) rationality is broken. Not that they’re satisfied with bounded rationality either, but economists are in the business of making models of human behavior and “all models are wrong.” Most of the folks who seem confused about this fact aren’t the economists, but the folks outside the discipline who don’t seem to be aware of the fact that economists are aware that their models are flawed.
Now, to Fukuyama’s main point: are ideas “independent variables”? I don’t think so. If Newton hadn’t figured out gravity, would some other clever chap have come along and figured it out by now? Probably so. I think that in most cases if you take out one particular genius, some other genius sooner or later comes to the same–or a very similar–realization. There’s no way to test it, but that’s my hunch. In fact, the whole business of a singular genius inventing this or that is often a delusion to begin with. Most of the really big breakthroughs–evolution and calculus come to mind first, but there plenty of others–were invented more or less simultaneously by different people at similar times. This is strong evidence to me that something about the historical context of (for example) Darwin and Wallace or Newton and Leibniz strongly directed people towards those discoveries. Which, if true, means that scientific discoveries are emphatically not independent. I have a hunch that’s what’s true of science is probably true to some degree of non-scientific ideas as well. If Marx had never been born, would we have Marxism? Probably not, but we’d probably have something pretty darn similar. (After all, we’d still have Engels, wouldn’t we?) It’s not like collective ownership is a new idea, after all. We’ve had the Peasant’s Revolt and the Red Turban Rebellion and many, many more. Take that basic idea, throw in a little Hegel (Marx just retrofitted Hegelianism) and presto: Marxism. If Marx hadn’t done it, and Engels hadn’t either, someone else would probably have done something similar. Maybe even using Hegel.
I don’t want to overstate my rebuttal to Fukuyama’s overstatement, so let’s pull back just a bit. I’m saying it’s probable that–in a world without Marx–someone else invents an ideology pretty close to Marxism. But does it take off? Does it inspire Lenin and Stalin? Does it lead to Mao and Castro? Do we still have the Cold War? I have no idea. And, while we’re at it, I’m not saying that if you didn’t have Shakespeare, someone else would have written Romeo and Juliet. I think that’s pretty absurd. My argument has two points: first, there’s interaction between ideas and physical contexts. Neither one is independent of the other. Second, human society is a complex system and that means it’s going to have some characteristics that are robust and hard to change (stable equilibria) and others where the tiniest variation could give rise to a totally different course of events (unstable equilibria). Maybe there was something inevitable about the general contours of socialism such that if you subtract Marx, and then subract Engels too, you still end up with a Cold War around a basically capitalist / socialist axis. Or maybe if even a fairly trivial detail in Marx’s life had changed, then Stalin would have been a die-hard free market capitalist and the whole trajectory of the post World War II 20th century would have been unrecognizable. I don’t know. I just do know that–just as ideas aren’t merely the consequences of physical circumstances–they also aren’t uncaused lightning bolts from the void, either. Ideas and the physical world exist in a state of mutual feedback.
But the primary concern of the book is this question: how do political order arise? For Fukuyama, political order has three components:
Rule of law
His account is contrarian basically from start to finish, but never (to my mind) gratuitously so. He argues, for example, that instead of starting with the rise of liberal democracy in the West, the key starting position is ancient China, the first society to develop a state in the modern sense. On the other hand, China never developed a robust rule of law. It was rather rule by law, a situation in which the emperor was not constrained by the idea of transcendent laws (either religious or, later, constitutional) and therefore China’s precocious, early state became as much a curse as a blessing:
[P]recocious state building in the absence of rule of law and accountability simply means that states can tyrannize their populations more effectively. Every advance in material well-being and technology implies, in the hands of an unchecked state, a greater ability to control society and to use it for the state’s own purposes.
Fukuyama’s historical analysis is far-reaching. He spends quite a lot of time on India and the Middle East as well. At last he turns his analysis on Europe where–quite apart from the conventional East / West dichotomy–he goes country-by-country to show how the basic problems confronted by states in China, India, and the Middle East also sabotaged the development of most European states. France and Spain became weak absolutist governments with state building and rule of law, but no accountability. Russia became a strongly absolutist government. The difference? The central rules of Spain and France managed to subvert their political rivals (the aristocracy), but only just barely. In Russia, the czars completely dominated their political rivals, ruling with more or less unchecked power.
Fukuyama spends a lot of this time on England, specifically, which he holds up as a kind of lottery winner where all sorts of factors that went awry everywhere else managed to line up correctly. And the story he tells is a fascinating one, because he inverts basically everything you’ve been taught in school. Here’s a characteristic passage where he summarizes a few arguments that he makes at length in the book:
[T]he exit out of kinship-based social organization had started already during the Dark Ages with the conversion of Germanic barbarians to Christianity. The right of individuals including women to freely buy and sell property was already well established in England in the 13th century. The modern legal order had its roots in the fight waged by the Catholic church against the emperor in the late 11th century, and the first European bureaucratic organizations were created by the church to manage its own internal affairs. The Catholic church, long vilified as an obstacle to modernization, was in this longer-term perspective at least as important as the Reformation as the driving force behind key aspects of modernity. Thus the European path to modernization was not a spasmodic burst of change across all dimensions of development, but rather a series of piecemeal shifts over a period of nearly 1,500 years. In this peculiar sequence, individualism on the social level could precede capitalism. Rule of law could precede the formation of a modern state. And feudalism, in the form of strong pockets of local resistance to central authority, could be the foundation of modern democracy.
It’s a fascinating argument–just because it’s original and well-argued–but I also found it convincing. I think Fukuyama is basically correct.
So a couple more notes. First, there are basically two problems that Fukuyama sees consistently eroding political order, and both of them go back to the biological foundations of politics. The first is what he calls repatrimonialization. To keep things simple, let’s just say “nepotism” instead. The idea is that the band-level origins of human nature never go away, and the temptation to use the state’s authority to enrich one’s own kin is omnipresent. His discussion of the Catholic church’s invention of the doctrine of celibacy to successfully stave off this threat (bishops kept trying to pass on their callings to their children before that doctrine was created) and the unsuccessful attempts of the Mamluk Sultanate to use slave soldiers to stave off this threat (eventually the slave soldiers grew so politically powerful that they “reformed” the prohibitions against passing on property) are some of the most historically illuminating in the book.
The second problem is human conservatism. Fukuyama doesn’t mean in the partisan sense. He’s referring to our tendency–a universal aspect of human nature–to invent and then follow norms and laws. The problem here is that once we invent our laws, we stick to them. And when circumstances change, the norms/laws (and institutions) should change too, but humans don’t like to do that. So one of the #1 causes of the downfall of political order is a historically successful state proving incapable of reforming institutions to meet a changing environment due to sheer inertia. The classic example is pre-revolution France, and here Fukuyama finds a convention with which he has no quarrel:
We have seen numerous examples of rent-seeking coalitions that have prevented necessary institutional change and therefore provoked political decay. The classic one from which the very term rent derives was ancient regime France, where the monarchy had grown strong over two centuries by co-opting much of the French elite. This co-option took the form of the actual pruchase of small pieces of the state, which could then be handed down to descendants. When reformist ministers like Maupeou and Turgot sought to change the system by abolishing venal office altogether, the existing stakeholders were strong enough to block any action. The problem of venal officeholding was solved only through violence in the course of the revolution.
The second note I wanted to make was about partisanship. First, it’s important to note that although Fukuyama celebrates the rise of modern liberalism in England, he’s not promoting English exceptionalism. He spends a lot of time talking about what he calls “getting to Denmark.” His point there is that Denmark is also a widely-respected stable, modern, prosperous democracy and it didn’t follow the trajectory of England. The point is that he’s not saying: everyone, copy the English. Although he traces the origins of liberalism the farthest back in time in England, he specifically notes that if Denmark could find its own way into liberalism without retracing that path: so can other nations.
This is an important point, because Fukuyama is dealing in comparative politics, and he has no problem drawing rather sweeping (albeit justified, in my mind) generalizations when contrasting, for example, India and China. This is the kind of thing that anyone in my generation or younger (young Gen-X / Millennials) has been trained to reflexively reject. If you compare societies, it’s because you’re a racist. Given that Fukuyama is comparing societies–and that he arguably has the most praise for the English in terms of the philosophical origins of modern liberalism–there is no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be (has been) attacked as a kind of apologist for white supremacy, etc.
And that’s not true. First, because as I said he’s adamant about the fact that other nations can (and have) found their way to liberalism without imitating all aspects of English (let alone European) culture, society, or politics. Second, because he has plenty of non-European success stories. (Unfortunately, those are mostly from his second volume, since this one only goes up to the French Revolution and so doesn’t cover the explosion of democracy world-wide since that time.) Third, and finally, because he’s more than willing to look at pros and cons of differing systems. For example, going back to China and their problem with despotism, here’s a comment he makes towards the end of the book:
An authoritarian system can periodically run rings around a liberal democratic one under good leadership, since it is able to make quick decisions unencumbered by legal challenges or legislative secondguessing. On the other hand, such a system depends on a constant supply of good leaders. Under a bad emperor, the unchecked powers vested in the government can lead to disaster. This problem remains key in contemporary China, where accountability flows only upward and not downward.
This is the kind of clear-eyed, open-minded analysis that I think we need more of, not less of. It’s hard to argue, for example, with the success of S. Korea in leap-frogging from despotism to liberal democracy. There’s no reason–in principle–that China could not do something similar. (Other than problems of scale, that is.)
So here are my final thoughts. First: this is a fascinating book and it’s a lot of fun to read. It’s full of interesting history along with interesting theorizing. Second: I am convinced by Fukuyama’s arguments. And lastly, I have a lot of respect for his approach. He’s a centrist, and so he’s going to tick some people off for praising the kinds of things that radicals like to attack. If you think liberal democracy is the devil, Fukuyama is an apologist for Satan. On the other hand, it would be entirely wrong to dismiss him as a partisan hack. He interacts with Hayek a lot, for example, but this includes a mixture of praise on some points and also staunch criticism on others. He’s willing to laud capitalism (as the evidence warrants, I might add) but also to tip some of the rights sacred cows. “Free markets are necessary to promote long-term growth,” he says, but finishes the sentence with, “but they are not self-regulating.” He also savages the small-government obsession of the right, arguing that if you like small government, maybe you should move to Somalia. He’s not just ridiculing the right in that case, however, but pointing out that:
Political institutions are necessary and cannot be taken for granted. A market economy and high levels of wealth don’t magically appear when you “get government out of the way”; they rest on a hidden institutional foundation of property rights, rule of law, and basic political order. A free market, a vigorous civil society, the spontaneous “wisdom of crowds” are all important components of a working democracy, but none can ultimately replace the functions of a strong, hierarchical government. There has been a broad recognition among economist in recent years that “institutions matter”: poor countries are poor not because they lack resources but because they lack effective political institutions. We need therefore to better understand where those institutions come from.
In other words–and he returns to this point in the second volume–Fukuyama is dismissive of arguments about the quantity of government in favor of arguments about the quality of government.
His ideas are interesting, they are relevant, and they are compelling. I highly, highly recommend this book.
This article reports the results of a nationwide audit study testing how Christian churches welcome potential newcomers to their churches as a function of newcomers’ race and ethnicity. We sent email inquiries to 3,120 churches across the United States. The emails were ostensibly from someone moving to the area and looking for a new church to attend. That person’s name was randomly varied to convey different racial and ethnic associations. In response to these inquiries, representatives from mainline Protestant churches—who generally embrace liberal, egalitarian attitudes toward race relations—actually demonstrated the most discriminatory behavior. They responded most frequently to emails with white-sounding names, somewhat less frequently to black- or Hispanic-sounding names, and much less to Asian-sounding names. They also sent shorter, less welcoming responses to nonwhite names. In contrast, evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches showed little variation across treatment groups in their responses.
So, it’s those crazy evangelicals and Catholics–long associated with the American right and therefore with bigotry of every description–who were actually the most welcoming to minorities.
Having just finished the first season today, I was pleased to find this insightful piece at Slate on Netflix’s new series Marvel’s Daredevil. The article explains, “To really understand Daredevil—both the comic book and the new show—you need to understand his Catholicism.” And they are right. The show “tries to reconcile the lawyer who defends the law with the Daredevil who breaks it. Murdock’s brutal justice is more than his way of taking personal responsibility for the sins of others; it’s his way of atoning for his own. Murdock’s real superpower, and also his biggest foe, is his Catholicism.” The article concludes, “Daredevil is far from the perfect superhero. He makes mistakes. He doesn’t have “an iron suit or a magic hammer.” And his relentless sacrifice night after night, his ability to gain strength from his weaknesses, and his guilt over the terrible things he does to bring justice to Hell’s Kitchen may not make him the perfect Catholic either, but they do make his faith an ever greater superpower than his heightened senses.” While religious convictions or mere leanings tend to show up in passing in film (unless it is portrayed negatively), their is a healthy dose of confession, the priest, and empty, post-Mass churches throughout the first season. There are frank questions about morality and spirituality between Murdock and the priest. And while it may not be earth-shattering, I sense a kind of metaphysical longing and pondering on Murdock’s part throughout the series. The show’s title sequence features a red liquid (wax or even blood?) that creates numerous images, which are linked to the three elements that shape Daredevil: (1) blind justice via the law, (2) his upbringing in Hell’s Kitchen, and (3) his Catholicism.
For me, the appearance of the cross and angel stir my own metaphysical ponderings.
Michael Shermer will debate “Does God Exist” with Father Lucas Laborde today at 7 PM PST at the Oregon State University Socratic Club. The debate will livestream at the link below:
Dr. Michael Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. Dr. Shermer received his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University. He has authored many books, including Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design
Fr. Lucas Laborde is the pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Portland. He earned his M.A. in Philosophy at the Universidad del Norte Santo Tomás de Aquino, Argentina, and studied Theology at San Carlos Borromeo Seminary in Rosario, Argentina. Fr. Laborde also spent five years as a Campus Minister at the Oregon State University Newman Center.
Tune in and enjoy. I will be at the debate in person and may even sneak in a question.
What was new at the extraordinary synod—and what helped make it “extraordinary” in the ordinary sense of that word—was the emergence of African Catholicism as a major factor in shaping the future of global Catholicism. African synod fathers were among the leaders in challenging the Kasper proposals [regarding divorce and receiving the Eucharist], arguing forcefully that the Christian idea of marriage had come to their cultures as a liberating force, especially for women. They also suggested, implicitly if not explicitly, that bishops representing dying local churches ought not be exporting Western decadence to the Global South, where Catholicism was growing exponentially by preaching the truths of the Gospel with compassion but also without compromise.
Pope Francis has just named 15 new “voting cardinals” to the body of prelates who will elect his successor, and his choices represent a further dilution of the power of the Italian bureaucracy which has hitherto constituted the hard core of global Catholicism. The new cardinal-electors hail from a total of 14 countries; only five come from Europe, and the European choices are somewhat unconventional.
With the growth of Catholicism and Christianity in general in Africa and Asia, Europeans and Americans are also finding something out: The new Christianity is the old Christianity. The Christianity of Africa and Asia is not the intellectualized Christianity of late Europe. It’s the Christianity of the New and Old Testament, complete with belief in miracles, the power of prayer, the importance of communal worship,the existence of angels and demons, and in the case of Catholicism, all the traditional Church views on abortion, marriage, divorce, and other topics.
Catholicism and Christianity are growing into a more truly global belief with voices heard from all nations. All Christians should be happy, right? Wrong.
In the interview [Cardinal] Kasper tries to dismiss the opinions of African bishops (which need not be accepted in whole to be taken seriously) as the product of mere taboo:
“Africa is totally different from the West. Also Asian and Muslim countries, they’re very different, especially about gays. You can’t speak about this with Africans and people of Muslim countries. It’s not possible. It’s a taboo. For us, we say we ought not to discriminate, we don’t want to discriminate in certain respects.”
Cardinal Kasper then went on to say how Africans “should not tell us too much what we have to do.” Turns out, Cardinal Kasper isn’t alone in his views on non-European Christians:
Ekeocha perceived Kasper’s words as typical of the dismissals she has encountered as an African Christian living in Europe. She’s heard it before, and now she hears it again:
“Reading this interview brought much tears to my eyes and much sadness to my heart because as an African woman now living in Europe, I am used to having my moral views and values ignored or put down as an ‘African issue’or an ‘African view point.’ I have had people imply that I am not sophisticated or evolved enough in my understanding of human sexuality, homosexuality, marriage, sanctity of human life from conception, openness to life and the so called ‘over-population.’
So as a result, in many circles, any contributions I make in discussions are placed in second or third rung. How can Africa stand shoulder to shoulder with other cultures if our views are considered uncouth or uncool by a standard strictly scripted by Western, worldly and wealthy nations?”
So as a bonus to finding out the new Christianity is just like the old Christianity, we’re also finding out that, for all the talk of diversity and respecting different points of view, we have the same old imperialism. Europe knows best, and anyone who disagrees just isn’t enlightened enough. It couldn’t possibly be that Europe is decaying while Africa and Asia are growing and renewing, even though all demographics and personal testimonies point to that conclusion. It couldn’t possibly be that Africa and Asia are holding to enduring values while Europe is busy progressing itself into cultural oblivion. Which reminds me of a favorite C.S. Lewis quote:
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
I’m willing to bet Africans and Asians are the most progressive Christians on the planet by that definition.
How often have we heard the statistic cited along the lines of “98% of Catholic women use contraceptives.” It seems come up every time the word ‘Catholic’ and ‘contraceptives’ appear in the same sentence. Here’s the original study.
There are some real oddities in this study, as people have noted since the study came out in 2011. I’ll highlight the two most prominent ones:
1) 11% of women are noted as using no method of contraception, and they mysteriously vanish from the math because only the 2% of women who are identified as using NFP are subtracted from 100% to reach the conclusion that 98% of Catholic women use contraception.
2) The data “[r]efers to sexually active women who are not pregnant, postpartum or trying to get pregnant.” So the study excludes women who are pregnant, postpartum, or trying to get pregnant. Since the Catholic Church teaches NFP as a way to space children, chances are NFP users are going to fall into one of these three categories for decent portions of their reproductive lives.
Normally, I would just put this case down as one more example in the ‘Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics’ folder. However, the proliferation of this statistic and similar statistics involving the Catholic Church are not simple mistakes. They serve a very clear purpose: To paint the Catholic Church as backward and out of touch with its members and therefore irrelevant. How do I know? Because this has been done before with abortion. Bernard Nathanson, a co-founder of NARAL who later became pro-life and then Catholic, lays out exactly what they did and why:
We systematically vilified the Catholic Church and its “socially backward ideas” and picked on the Catholic hierarchy as the villain in opposing abortion. This theme was played endlessly. We fed the media such lies as “we all know that opposition to abortion comes from the hierarchy and not from most Catholics” and “Polls prove time and again that most Catholics want abortion law reform”.
And the media drum-fired all this into the American people, persuading them that anyone opposing permissive abortion must be under the influence of the Catholic hierarchy and that Catholics in favour of abortion are enlightened and forward-looking.
Sound familiar? This tune is played endlessly on every issue involving in the Catholic Church. People who disagree with the Church are enlightened and forward-thinking. People who hold the Church position are brainwashed and backward. The Guttmacher study above even takes time in its short discussion to paint the Catholic hierarchy as out-of-touch and behind the times:
Even among married Catholic women, only 3% practice natural family planning, while a majority uses contraceptives that the Church hierarchy routinely denounces. This research suggests that the perception that strongly held religious beliefs and contraceptive use are antithetical is wrong—in fact, the two may be highly compatible.
I think it’s worth noting this tactic because it’s moving beyond the Catholic Church. I have been keeping track of the controversy in the Mormon church over women’s ordination, and the same narrative appears: The Mormon hierarchy is backward and authoritarian, bent on enforcing its will on regular Mormons. Those who oppose the hierarchy are free thinkers who want to liberate the church from its oppressive dogmas. This instance is even more obnoxious because, while I’m fairly certain a sizable majority of American Catholics use contraception (just not 98%), we know for a fact that the vast majority of Mormons oppose women’s ordination, and more Mormon women than men oppose it!
Any church that makes a habit of opposing the zeitgeist can expect similar treatment. So if people see some discrepancy between what they see in church and what the internet insists their fellow congregants believe, this is one reason why.
Solemn oaths today seem to strike people as some combination of quaint, naive, and constricting. They’re the kind of thing for a person long on overactive imagination and short on worldly experience. But personally, I like them very much. I find them to be an excellent vehicle for holding myself accountable. I also like them because I think there’s something inherently weaselly about human nature. If we don’t swear to something, we’re more likely later to revise our personal narrative to fit what we ended up doing. True, one can always re-interpret the oath, but that act should be, to a a person at very least trying to be honest, a sign he or she has gone astray.
Most importantly, I like that a good oath has specific points you can either uphold or fail to uphold, and again to anyone at least trying to uphold their word, success or failure will be apparent. For example, I’m very fond of the oath of the Knights of the Round Table from Le Morte D’Arthur (updated from Middle English to modern English):
This is the oath of a Knight of King Arth[u]r’s Round Table and should be for all of us to take to heart. I will develop my life for the greater good. I will place character above riches, and concern for others above personal wealth, I will never boast, but cherish humility instead, I will speak the truth at all times, and forever keep my word, I will defend those who cannot defend themselves, I will honor and respect women, and refute sexism in all its guises, I will uphold justice by being fair to all, I will be faithful in love and loyal in friendship, I will abhor scandals and gossip-neither partake nor delight in them, I will be generous to the poor and to those who need help, I will forgive when asked, that my own mistakes will be forgiven, I will live my life with courtesy and honor from this day forward.
So I can ask myself: Have I developed my life for the greater good, or have I spent my time playing video games and drinking beer? Have I placed character and charity above riches, or have I sought wealth before character and concern for others? Do I say or think unfair things about women? Do I boast? Do I gossip? Do I forgive?
That’s a really hard list. Beer and distraction are way more fun than personal improvement. Money buys me beer and makes me feel comfortable. Sexist thoughts and comments about women are tempting. And it feels like a week let alone a day doesn’t go by without some temptation to boasting or gossiping. But I really, really like trying to hold myself to this standard because it makes me aware of the things I do that might not be right or just and would go unnoticed by myself if I didn’t actively pay attention.
The Beatitudes aren’t really an oath, but they’re similarly structured in a way that you can evaluate yourself:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. 6 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The wording isn’t entirely concrete, but I think it’s clear enough. Have I been poor in spirit? Meek? Merciful? Clean of heart? Have I sought peace and reconciliation wherever possible? These are prime metrics by which I may judge whether I have walked rightly or not if I have the integrity to evaluate myself impartially, and again, they ask a great amount. Being meek and clean of heart is a continuous struggle. Peace and reconciliation are often far from our thoughts.
Lastly, I like oaths because they are a commitment to faithfulness and call to action. I took an oath upon my confirmation in the Catholic Church at 23:
For “by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.”
I have given God my word that I will uphold and defend the faith by word and deed. If I go back on that word, I will know that I am a liar and traitor for all of my life.
And that fact applies to everything I do. When I fail to live as Christ taught, in the Beatitudes and elsewhere, I fail to live by my oath. I bring disrepute upon the Church and the greater Christian communion. The only answer then, if I am to be faithful to my word, is to continually bring my life closer to the life of Him whom I have sworn to serve.
I just finished reading Brandon Sanderson’s monstrous tome: Words of Radiance. It’s his second book in the Stormlight Archives and, like the first, clocks in at over 1,000 pages. The expression on the clerk’s face in Barnes and Nobles when she picked up the book to hand it to me was priceless: “Wow,” she said as she nearly dropped the book, “This is a commitment!”
I’ve never liked high fantasy taken as a genre, but I did love The Lord of the Rings (which launched the genre) and I am enjoying Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives. Despite the fact that I’m enjoying them, however, they display the systematic problems that have plagued the genre ever since (but not including) Tolkien.
High fantasy, if you’re not familiar with the term, refers to the kinds of fantasy books that have maps in them. Not to mention a glossary, pronunciation guide, appendices, and maybe an index, too. This is because high fantasy is defined largely by its setting: an imaginary world with its own history, cultures, religions, languages, and—of course—magic.
For all practical purposes, Tolkien invented high fantasy. Of course all the pieces came from Saxon and Norse myths and folklore, but what he created when The Lord of the Rings was first published in the 1950’s was something new. The books were very successful from the early years and have gone on to sell more copies than any other novel (150 million thus far) except A Tale of Two Cities. The corpus of high fantasy has been and continues to this day to be a long line of Tolkien imitators.
The problem is that they have all learned the wrong lesson. They understand that setting defines high fantasy, and they understand that Tolkien’s mastery of world-building fueled his artistic and commercial success, but they fundamentally mistake the product (The Lord of the Rings as a narrative text) with the process (Tolkien’s actual beliefs and practices for world-building).
To correct this confusion we must start with the realization that Tolkien’s world-building was inextricable from his religious faith. He was a devout Roman Catholic and what we call world-building he called sub-creation, which is a term with obvious and deliberate religious connotations. As the Tolkien Gateway puts it:
‘Sub-creation’ was also used by J.R.R. Tolkien to refer [to the] process of world-building and creating myths. In this context, a human author is a ‘little maker’ creating his own world as a sub-set within God’s primary creation. Like the beings of Middle-earth, Tolkien saw his works as mere emulation of the true creation performed by God.
As we delve deeper into Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation, it is useful to contrast his view with that of his friend C. S. Lewis, as Professor Downing has done in a paper called “Sub-Creation or Smuggled Theology: Tolkien contra Lewis on Christian Fantasy” at the C. S. Lewis Institute. C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia certainly deserves mention as co-founding the subgenre of high fantasy and, for the most part, his reverence for the work of sub-creation paralleled Tolkien’s. But there were important differences, and those differences are very clear in the different tones and styles of the works and also in the supremacy of The Lord of the Rings over Chronicles of Narnia in historical and literary impact.
Downing points out that, for Tolkien, “engaging one’s creativity is an imitation of God and a form of worship.” For Lewis, by contrast, a work of art had to have a higher purpose than the creative impulse itself. In his famous essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” Lewis propounded a dualistic account of artistic creation. The Author writes for the sake of writing, but The Man harnesses this impulse towards some external end. As Downing summarizes Lewis: “[A] writer can’t even begin without the Author’s urge to create, but… he shouldn’t begin without the Man’s desire to communicate his deepest sense of himself and his world.”
The Lewis-Tolkien dialogue on sub-creation is a particularly interesting one for a Mormon to enter because of theological differences over the term “creation.” As Downing notes, C. S. Lewis referred back to the orthodox Christian theology of creation ex nihilo in his discussion of artistic creativity. Lewis wrote in a letter to Sister Penelope:
‘Creation’ [as] applied to human authorship seems to me entirely misleading term. We rearrange elements He has provided. There is not a vestige of real creativity de novo in us. Try to imagine a new primary colour, a third sex, a fourth dimension, or even a monster which does not consist of bits and parts of existing animals stuck together. Nothing happens. And that surely is why our works (as you said) never mean to others quite what we intended: because we are recombining elements made by Him and already containing His meanings.
For Downing, this is a point against Tolkien. Tolkien stressed the independence of sub-created worlds but—as Downing and Lewis point out—there is no such thing as independent creation. Humans create by dividing or combining elements that are already available, not by making new elements. From a strictly orthodox Christian theological perspective, this is a fairly serious indictment of Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation because it draws a deep chasm between the kind of creation in which God engages and the kind of sub-creation in which we may participate. How can we be worshipfully imitating our Father when it turns out that the process in which we are engaged is actually a totally distinct process that only happens to share the same label by linguistic happenstance?
As it turns out, however, a rejection of creation ex nihilo is one of the defining aspects of Mormon theology. As many non-Mormon Christian theologians have also observed the Creation (as depicted in Genesis) is almost exclusively a depiction of creation the way that Tolkien and Lewis and all other writers create: by re-arranging pre-existing materials. After “let there be light,” God’s work is all about separation: light from dark, sea from dry land, and so forth. He doesn’t seem to create the earth, moon, stars, sun, or anything else by calling them into being out of the void, but rather by molding unformed materials. For a Mormon like me, at least, sub-creation is more akin to the Creation of God, not less.
In any case, however, what really matters is that Tolkien viewed sub-creation not merely as just another tool in the writer’s tool belt (along with plotting and characterization, say) but rather as a stand-alone activity that had merit in and of itself. This belief is what allowed Tolkien to be such a profligate world builder. He created vastly more material than ever made it into his books. He called this trove of linguistics, geography, history, myth, culture and genealogy the Legendarium, defined by the Tokien Gateway as “the entirety of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works concerning his imagined world of Arda.”
The relationship between The Legendarium and his literary works (like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings) an important one in two ways. First, as noted, the Legendarium is far larger. According to Downing, for example, “Quenya, the elvish tongue… had a vocabulary of several hundred words, with consistent declensions and etymologies” by the time he completed The Lord of The Rings, but only a sparse handful of those words appear in the text. The second is that they are, to a large degree, independent. The Legendarium was not completed for the purpose of writing The Lord of the Rings but as an independent exercise undertaken for its own merits. The stories came later, not as an afterthought, but as a distinct labor with their own objectives and process.
Of course in practice the two activities—the world-building and the story-telling—were intertwined. The point is simply that there were two activities, and Tolkien loved them both.
His reckless and extravagant acts of creation are what, to a large extent, made his fiction seems to vibrant and real. Early in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is nearly killed by a barrow-wight. If you consult Appendix A you will learn that he had been trapped in the cairn of the last prince of Cardolan. Who was that prince? What was Cardolan? I have no idea, but I also have no doubt that Tolkien’s Legendarium contains the answers to both questions. This is just one example of many—to many to count!—where the characters in The Lord of the Rings came across an abandoned place that was steeped in history and drama not directly related to the story.
Argonath is, among these many examples, the one that has haunted me for the longest. Here’s the passage, which comes from the chapter “The Great River” near the very end of The Two Towers, that has haunted me since I first read it in a pop-up camper in Tennessee on a summer vacation when I was only 11 or 12 years old:
Upon great pedestals founded in the deep waters stood two great kings of stone: still with blurred eyes and crannied brows they frowned upon the North. The left hand of each was raised palm outwards in gesture of warning; in each right hand there was an axe; upon each head there was a crumbling helm and crown. Great power and majesty they still wore, the silent wardens of a long-vanished kingdom.
What impressed me then and has remained with me ever since is that Arganoth has basically nothing to do with the rest of the story. Sure, it marks the historic northern boundary of Gondor, but by the time we get to The Lord of the Rings, Gondor has already shrunk far from those boundaries. And sure, Strider / Aragorn is a descendent of the antecedents of Gondor, but does that really matter for the story? No, it doesn’t, and that’s why it makes Middle Earth beautiful. It is creation for creation’s sake. I knew, even as a kid, that Tolkien understood perfectly who had built these strange, forgotten pillars and why and the knowledge that he knew things that weren’t in the book is what made the book seem so real. Just like the real world: there’s always more history in Tolkien’s work than you can take in at once.
So Tolkien loved sub-creation for its own sake, which caused him to do quite a lot of it, which in turn made the setting of The Lord of the Rings vivid beyond compare, which in turn led to the widespread popular love of those books, which in turn helped found the genre of high fantasy. Now, over a half century later, high fantasy is a genre cluttered with books full of maps of fantasy countries and continents, but none of them have remotely captured the grandeur of Tolkien’s original because they have tried to imitate his product without understanding the process that led to it. And Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance (despite being a very fine book) is the perfect example of how it has all gone sideways since Tolkien.
High fantasy writers since Tolkien have created less and showed off more. The bigger problem is not that they have created less in total but rather that the ratio of what they have created for the setting to what they show you on the pages of their novels has diminished substantially. Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives are a great example of this problem because I get the feeling that he very well might, by the time he’s done, eclipse Tolkien in terms of sheer creative output, but he also seems bound and determined to shoehorn every last thought he has ever had about his creations directly into the text. This has three bad consequences.
First: it makes the stories bloated. Sanderson seems preoccupied with making sure you know exactly how the magical system he has created works. How does that help the story? Did Tolkien need to tell us how Gandalf’s magic worked in excruciating detail? And even if you argue that Sanderson’s strong suit is magical systems where Tolkien’s was language, the metaphor still holds: no one reads The Lord of the Rings and feels like someone tried to sneak a lecture on linguistics into their fantasy novel. The linguistics are there, of course, but Tolkien doesn’t feel the need to beat you over the head with them, whereas large portions of Words of Radiance revolve around nothing other than frog-marching the reader through a tour of Sanderson’s fabricated lore.
Second: it makes the worlds seem flimsy. Far from having an abundance of lost cities and forgotten heroes to populate the fringes of the story, Words of Radiance is rife with extra characters and stories (in the Interludes sections especially) that over-explain the universe. You rapidly get the impression that nothing—no religion, concept, magical power, artifact, civilization, or anything else—is going to be introduced in this book without being explained to death. Reading The Lord of the Rings feels like visiting another world because you know that there is a story underneath every stone, far more than you will actually experience in the text. Reading Words of Radiance feels like visiting a theme park ride by comparison: you have the impression that if you take even one step off the beaten path you’d see the 2×4’s holding up the painted backdrops. No matter how much you create, you have to hold something back or the reader is going to see through your creation.
Third: it requires a very specific scope. Because high fantasy authors feel the need to cram every part of their sub-creation into the stories they write and because they often invent their worlds from the very moment of first creation, they trap themselves into writing only cosmic stories. This is bad because Big Questions are easy to raise but hard to answer, and so right off the bat high fantasy writers are painting themselves into a difficult corner. But even if they can pull it off, the fact remains that they are only capable of writing mega-epics. Which, to be clear, is a category that excludes the founding high fantasy story: The Lord of the Rings. Did you notice that the definition of Legendarium included the “world of Arda.” What, exactly, is that? You wouldn’t know, based on reading The Lord of the Rings, just as you would never have heard of Eru Ilúvatar (“the supreme God of Elves and Men” and “the single omnipotent creator”) nor of the Ainur (“divine spirits, the ‘Holy Ones’” who actually shaped Middle Earth).
Tolkien did all the work of sub-creation back to the Big Bang of Middle Earth, and you can read all about it in The Silmarillion, but none of truly foundational lore shows up in The Lord of the Rings at all. It’s true that Sauron is a pretty epic bad guy, but the scope of the The Lord of the Rings is actually quite limited. It’s the story of one particular time that one particular bad guy threatened the peace of one particular region of the world. Gandalf is clear that this isn’t some ultimate final battle or anything like it. He calls the last military campaign “The great battle of our time.” (emphasis added) and when Frodo says “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened,” Gandalf replies: “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us” (emphasis added). Eru never shows up. Neither do the Ainur. The story of The Lord of the Rings is, compared to the majestic backstory Tolkien had available, mundane. It is almost an anti-epic. It’s emphatically not a story that tries to be about everything all at once and it’s in that specificity that it becomes singular and glorious. I generally dislike high fantasy as a genre precisely because it has lost sight of imperative of specificity that underlies the very definition of narrative.
It’s worth noting at this point an important fact: Tolkien originally tried to include The Silmarillion for publication in the same book as The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t his foresight that saw The Lord of the Rings published as a standalone text, but rather the imposition of editors and publishers who viewed the former work as uninteresting to the public. And they were right: The Silmarillion (which I have read and very much enjoyed) is only good because The Lord of the Rings is great.
The point of this essay is therefore not that Tolkien was an omniscient genius who is the only one to do high fantasy the right way, but simply that his theory of sub-creation is deeply important to the success—both artistically and commercially—of The Lord of the Rings and that anyone who wants to emulate that aspect of his success should study it, understand it, and emulate it.
Tolkien believed in sub-creation as an independently worthy action and engaged in it as a form of worship, and that explains the creation of the vast Legendarium. This was the well from which he dipped to draw out works like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and it makes sense to think of them as two separate kinds of projects: the world-building vs. the narrative itself.
Subsequent high fantasy authors have failed to fully appreciate this distinction and especially the worthwhile endeavor of sub-creation for its own sake. This is understandable. Writers get in the business to tell stories, not to write thousands of pages of backstory and setting that no one will ever see. They see world-building as necessary to telling fantasy stories, and they see Tolkien praised for the central place his world-building played in The Lord of the Rings, but they end up emulating the final product without fully understanding the process that went into it. They build the world for the story instead of for itself.
What’s more, the process is daunting. It requires an extraordinary amount of work that, in a way, seems wasteful. Why create an entire language—grammar, vocabulary, etymology and all—when just a few fun-sounding syllables here and there will do? The temptation to short-change the world-building and to only build what you need is overwhelming for authors who are not generally flush with cash and are often working on deadlines. How is it possible to justify the kind of exorbitant labor of love that Tolkien has engaged in?
For most people, it isn’t possible, and that is one major reason why The Lord of the Rings still stands alone. No one else seems able or willing to do what Tolkien did. They keep trying to get similar results, however, and I guess that’s good enough for fantasy’s audience.
If all of this sounds a little bit too harsh, let me restate what I said at the outset: even if I hold the genre of high fantasy in low regard as a whole I love The Lord of the Rings and I also like the Stormlight Archives quite a lot. I expect to read all of them.
But I stand by my criticism. It’s not that Sanderson hasn’t invested enough in world-building (he probably has), but it’s more that he just doesn’t seem willing to view that world-building as both intrinsically valuable and distinct from the narrative. He seems to want to cram all of it into the books. And that’s a bad thing. The Stormlight Archives are still excellent, in my opinion, but they are not nearly as good as they could be if they were treated as truly independent stories rather than vehicles for delivering world-building content. An abridged treatment would really, in this case, be a better story. Sanderson could have more focus without Interludes so tangential they make you want to pull your hair out , a richer and more immersive world, and greater freedom in the scope he chose to pick. Sanderson is a great writer, but there is still only one J. R. R. Tolkien.
Kevin Williamson has an article over at National Review that expresses many of the feelings I’ve had regarding some of the more hostile, self-righteous religious critics of capitalism. The article discusses the recent “panel of Catholic intellectuals and clergy, led by His Eminence Oscar Andrés Maradiaga,” that was “convened to denounce a political philosophy under the headline “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism.” The conference was mainly about free-market economics rather than libertarianism per se…” But as Williamson notes, “There is something about the intellectually cloistered lives of religious professionals that prevents them from engaging in anything but the most superficial way with the 21st-century economy.” But then he just lays it out:
The implicit economic hypothesis [of the panel] is that producing a certain amount of goods more efficiently — in this case, with less labor — makes the world worse off. (“Why not use spoons?”) The reality is the opposite, and that is not a matter of opinion, perspective, or ideology — it is a material reality, the denial of which is the intellectual equivalent of insisting on a geocentric or turtles-all-the-way-down model of the universe.
The increasingly global and specialized division of labor and the resulting chains of production — i.e., modern capitalism, the unprecedented worldwide project of voluntary human cooperation that is the unique defining feature of our time — is what cut the global poverty rate in half in 20 years. It was not Buddhist mindfulness or Catholic homilies that did that. In the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens, neither of those great religious traditions, nor anything else that human beings ever came up with, made a dent in the poverty rate. Capitalism did.
Production and resources are important. “If the Good Samaritan had been the Poor Samaritan,” explains Williamson, “with no resources to dedicate to the stranger’s care, then the poor waylaid traveler would have been out of luck. All the good intentions that we may muster are not half so useful to a hungry person as a loaf of bread.” The fact that “men of the cloth, of all people, should be blind to what is really happening right now on the global economic scale is remarkable, ironic, and sad. Cure one or two people of blindness and you’re a saint; prevent blindness in millions and you’re Monsanto.” What is really happening is this: “there is no poverty in the capitalist world comparable to poverty in the early 18th century, much less to the poverty that was nearly universal in Jesus’ time. Our people are clothed, fed, and housed, and the few shocking exceptions, as with the case of the neglected mentally ill, are shocking because they are exceptions.”
It boils down to “how you intend to fulfill the Lord’s command to feed His sheep — with rhetoric or with bread…”